The BCS Top Four Found Ways To Win
November 5 Guest Column
Working against a deficit, dwindling time and the roar of 93,000-plus in LSU's Death Valley, Alabama's A.J. McCarron and T.J. Yeldon delivered a catch-and-run touchdown for the ages.
Kansas State weathered a final 25 minutes without Collin Klein.
Oregon took shot after shot from Matt Barkley and Southern California, answered them all -- and then some.
Notre Dame scrambled out of a 14-point hole, then survived three overtimes.
Methods differed Saturday, but the bottom line for college football's Big Four was the same. They played with backbone. "We've got great competitors," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said after the Irish pulled out a 29-26 victory over Pittsburgh, "and we've made some plays at the end that we needed to make."
Ditto down the line.
And so, impending chaos in the Bowl Championship Series turned to convention. Alabama stayed entrenched at the very top of the standings released Sunday (though its stirring 21-17 win at LSU didn't prevent a voter in the Harris Poll from dropping the Crimson Tide a spot on his ballot). Kansas State stayed No. 2.
The only noticeable move was made by Oregon, which picked up points in both the Harris and USA TODAY coaches' polls and leapfrogged Notre Dame to No. 3. That, after the Ducks' rampaging offense outgunned USC 62-51. Notre Dame's close call cost it some votes.
This week brings two more expected tests. Alabama faces Texas A&M and surging freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel. Kansas State travels to TCU, its degree of anxiety resting on the status of Klein. The senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy frontrunner was shaken up and pulled from the Wildcats' 44-30 win over Oklahoma State; the school was offering no update Sunday.
Item: USC's, Troy's and Tulane's offenses average 604 yards and almost 49 points ... and go 0-3.
Deduction: Such are the times. They were among 27 major-college teams that scored 40 or more points Saturday. Even Alabama's vaunted defense was nicked, surrendering 435 yards -- the most since Nick Saban's first season as coach in 2007 -- and a couple of seemingly pivotal touchdowns in a little more than 5½ minutes in the second half at LSU.
Quarterbacks across the country are completing 60.8 percent of their passes for 240 yards a game, and offenses overall are averaging 411 yards and 29.6 points. All would be major-college records. Even the running game has picked up, averaging 4.4 yards a carry (another record if it holds) and 171 yards a game (on pace for the most in 24 years).
Does it bother anybody that the length of games also continues to climb, from an average of 3:14 a year ago to 3:17 thus far this season? It's approaching 3½ hours in the especially offense-minded Big 12 and Pacific 12 conferences (3:24 and 3:23 respectively).
Item: Unbeaten Louisville gets a little more love, nudging past Florida State and moving from 10th to ninth in the BCS standings.
Deduction: That's the highest ranking for a Big East member this late in the season in almost three years. But the Cardinals remain behind three SEC teams with a loss and a fourth, South Carolina, with two.
Compounding the drag of the nation's 16th-weakest schedule, per Jeff Sagarin's computer ratings, is the way Louisville has beaten some of those woebegone opponents -- Florida International by a mere seven points, Southern Mississippi by four, South Florida by two. Those three teams are a combined 5-23. On Saturday, the Cards needed pretty much a full half to assume control in an eventual 45-17 win over Temple.
Still, they're 9-0 for the first time in school history. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater continues to impress, throwing for a career-high five TDs against Temple. With a 70.4 percent completion rate, 18 TDs and four interceptions over the season, he's the nation's fifth highest-rated passer going into next Saturday's game at Syracuse.
Coach Charlie Strong has played the lack-of-respect card, splicing a couple of less-than-complimentary national media clips into his team's highlight tape. "It kind of gets under our skin a little bit," cornerback Adam Bushell said. "But Coach Strong is doing a good job of keeping us focused. And who knows where we can be at the end of the season?"
Item: UCLA, in Jim Mora's first year as coach, has an inside track to the Pac-12 championship game. Indiana, in its second season under Kevin Wilson, could play its way into the Big Ten's title game.
Deduction: UCLA? Indiana? This time four weeks ago, the Bruins were coming off a 43-17 loss at California. The Hoosiers, in the middle of a five-game losing streak, hadn't beaten anybody in the Big Ten since 2010. But both have righted themselves, and now control their own destinies in their respective leagues.
Indiana's contention in the Big Ten's Leaders Division is, of course, a product of Ohio State's and Penn State's championship-game ineligibility because of NCAA sanctions. But the Hoosiers (4-5 overall, 2-3 in the conference) have been respectable, the five losses coming by a total of 25 points. They gave Ohio State a 52-49 scare, fell by a point to Navy and since have beaten Illinois and Iowa.
UCLA (7-2, 4-2) has more serious credentials: a September win over Nebraska and victories in its last three games vs. Utah, Arizona State on the road and Arizona. The last of those was a stunner, Saturday's 66-10 rout of the Wildcats in which Brett Hundley, Johnathan Franklin and the rest of the offense piled up 611 yards.
Beat Wisconsin at home this week, and IU will share a 3-3 Big Ten record with the Badgers that's the best among the Leaders Division's eligible teams. Then come trips to Penn State and Purdue.
The Bruins go to Washington State on Saturday, then have some heavy lifting of their own against USC and Stanford. But both of the latter games are at home.
Item: Navy holds off Florida Atlantic 24-17, moving its record to 6-3 and becoming the first team to nail down a bowl berth.
Deduction: The Midshipmen are plugged into the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against a Pac-12 opponent. Only 69 more to fill.
Seriously, they've come a long way since losing their first two games to Notre Dame and Penn State by a combined 67 points. Freshman Keenan Reynolds has moved in at quarterback, throwing for eight touchdowns -- with just one interception -- and rushing for five more in the past four weeks. Navy is the last team to beat Indiana, has won five in a row overall and closes against 4-5 Troy, 3-5 Texas State and 2-7 Army.
Think Commander-in-Chief's Trophy (though Army is celebrating its 41-21 win over Air Force, the Black Knights' first over another service academy in 14 games). Think nine regular-season wins for the Middies for the third time in four years.